Attorney Brendan A. Sweeney of Sweeney Law, P.A. Featured in the Feb/March 2021 Edition of the Broward County Bar Barrister – A Year After…What is the Silver Lining from Covid-19 and What Can We Expect for 2021 A Discussion with the Honorable Jack Tuter, Chief Judge of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit
One year ago, times were much different: in-person court hearings, in-person mediations and depositions, in-person trials, no face masks, and significantly less use of hand sanitizer. Immense changes have taken place with the legal system as a result of the pandemic. As President John F. Kennedy stated “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
The Honorable Jack Tuter, Chief Judge of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, has been embracing the immense changes as a result of the pandemic, and recently discussed some of the positives that Covid-19 has brought as well as what to expect moving forward in 2021. Broward County is Florida’s second largest county, with a population just under two million people, and the caseloads are among the highest in the state. With the pandemic, Chief Judge Tuter has been faced with different challenges every month. There is no handbook for how to deal with these challenges; instead Judge Tuter has met the challenges head-on. Chief Judge Tuter regularly speaks with his counterparts in Palm Beach and Dade counties concerning the unique issues that the courts are currently facing. Additionally, there are quarterly meetings among the twenty Chief Circuit Judges in Florida, as well as regular weekly meetings when the legislature is in session. The challenges, stress level, problems and concerns, appear to be rather consistent amongst the twenty judicial circuits in Florida, despite their population size.
Chief Judge Tuter has noted that one of the biggest positives in Broward County and around the state has been the utilization of remote proceedings to conduct uniform motion calendar hearings, evidentiary hearings, and a plethora of other discovery matters. The ability of Broward Judges to transform to remote hearings did not necessarily happen overnight, however; it was very close. The Judges participated in ZOOM training, and eight high-tech video presentation systems were purchased for the courthouse. The high-tech video presentation systems allow for full blown trials to be conducted, and will be primarily utilized for trials and f irst appearance court. Chief Judge Tuter commended the Broward Judges and their staff, as well as attorneys, for embracing technology, cooperating, and being patient.
With remote proceedings, Judges have recognized that the parties are more time sensitive, i.e.: more cognizant of the time they are using, and are therefore less likely to run over their allotted hearing time. Further, the remote proceedings have signif icantly increased the ability of the general public to watch the hearings being conducted on their matters. Traditionally, parties will appear for family and criminal law matters, and Judges are recognizing a signif icant increase of parties logging on to hearings in general civil matters. The costs and time to participate or watch a hearing has now signif icantly decreased. What use to require an individual to take off a half day of work, f ight traff ic to get downtown, f ind and pay for parking, wait for the elevators, and wait for your hearing time, can now be accomplished in less than thirty minutes with the party signing-in virtually.
When asked whether uniform motion calendar hearings will be conducted remotely after the pandemic, Judge Tuter advised that this is one of the most common questions he receives, and that the answer is yes for sure. Judge Tuter has already started addressing the different logistical issues concerning using remote technology when the pandemic is over and requiring that all Broward Judges use remote technology.
One of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed is Broward County’s jail capacity is at 80%, while the lowest it has been during the pandemic was 63%. The increase is primarily attributable to more arrests. Judge Tuter has a f inger on the pulse of this issue, and already has a plan to address the over two hundred in-custody felony violation of probation cases that are set to have face to face hearings in the middle of March, which will most likely decrease the jail capacity. Judge Tuter is hopeful and optimistic that in-person jury trials will begin in April. The courthouse had glass partitions installed in eight county and circuit courtrooms in order to have in-person jury trials. The logistics as to which matters receive priority for the courtrooms is currently being addressed.
The civil divisions in Broward are working as eff iciently at closing cases as they were just prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. However, there has been a substantial increase of approximately twenty thousand county civil matters. This increase could be attributable to the recent increase in the jurisdictional limit to thirty thousand dollars, or could be an aberration as to Covid-19. Judge Tuter is already closely monitoring this issue and noted that some of the County Civil Judges may have higher caseloads, or some Judges currently in the criminal division may have to help out with the additional matters.
Chief Judge Tuter currently sees a light at the end of the tunnel with the increase of vaccinations. However, there is currently no rush to fully open up the courthouse until it is safe for everyone. The logistics related to social distancing in a twenty-story tower with eight elevators is mind-boggling, yet have already been started to be addressed. While we cannot be certain as to what the future holds, we can be certain that Chief Judge Tuter will be very prepared for any future challenges and will do everything in his power to ensure that parties’ due process rights and access to the courthouse is protected.
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